Australia’s environment takes its five-yearly health check, by Tom Hatton

Every five years the Australian Government must report on how our environment and heritage are fairing. The 2011 State of the Environment Report gives Australians the clearest and most comprehensive assessment to date on the condition of our environment, the risks it faces, what we are doing to protect it, and an outlook on where it is likely headed.

Much of the environment is on the mend…

Assessing the state of Australia’s environment is inherently difficult. We are a big country, with a wide variety of environments and heritage. Much of Australia’s environment is in good shape, or improving. This is largely true for northern environments, and most of our marine and Antarctic territory.

Other parts of our environment are in poor condition or deteriorating, often as a result of long-past decisions (or even just bad luck) that have left a legacy of ongoing impact. Such legacies include large-scale land clearing, introductions of pests and weeds, and the permanent drainage of wetlands.

These past actions will continue to exert pressures on our environment regardless of environmental policies and management that now prohibit or minimise such actions. The resources and technologies required to reverse or reduce historical impacts are in many cases beyond the means of even a wealthy nation like Australia.

…if only it weren’t for climate change

Perhaps the most confronting driver of future environmental change is our changing climate. In part this is because climate is such a direct and pervasive driver of environmental response, in part because global warming is something beyond our near-term or local control, and in part because of the uncertainties of scientific prediction and global policy.

Climate change is now widely perceived as a prime risk to both our environment and our society, and is clearly a major item on our national agenda. We can expect to be surprised by both the vulnerability and resilience of different parts of our environment and heritage.

The other major drivers that put our environment and heritage at risk are the consequences of population and economic growth. These are much more under our influence.

The complex effects of population growth

There is little justification for projecting future environmental impacts based entirely on historical relationships among growth and resource use, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. This would be unnecessarily superficial. For instance, if we did not add one more person or business to the nation, the ongoing impacts of feral goats and cane toads, post-war land clearing, and vegetation dieback would remain the same.

More people and more economic activity may mean more resource use, but the actual result depends on where and how the growth occurs and how we live our lives.

Australia is making progress in lowering per capita water use and landfill waste. There is strong evidence that while our economy has grown, we are generating more wealth per unit of water or energy used. But if we are to succeed in meeting even the least ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, we need to achieve far more substantial reductions in the energy intensity of our economy.

Changes to how we care for the environment

Four trends in environmental governance stand out over the past decade. The first is much greater emphasis on regional-scale environmental management, complementing the roles of different levels of government and of community-based organisations such as Landcare.

The second is that the Australian Government has exerted stronger leadership on a number of important environmental issues, such as biodiversity conservation and water governance.

The third is governments’ use of an array of market-based mechanisms to complement regulation as means for realising environmental goals.

Finally, Indigenous Australians have become more formally empowered in the management of their land and sea country.

We take the view that Australia will continue to do what we can to redress the legacy of our mixed history of environmental and heritage management, while ensuring we mitigate or wisely adapt to the ongoing drivers of climate change, population growth and economic growth.

Tom Hatton is the director of the Wealth from Oceans Flagship initiative at CSIRO.

This article was originally published by The Conversation, of which CSIRO is a Founding Partner.

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